Warhol’s screen tests, with a touch of Cobain

An interesting juxtaposition at the Seattle Art Gallery last month: a Kurt Cobain retrospective presented in a gallery alongside a Warhol exhibition, including many of his screen tests. Two long rooms were flanked with neverending projections of these short films, each of which featured a common name like Edie Sedgwick, Lou Reed or Nico, or an otherwise unknown like Freddy Herko.

“Mary Woronov observed in Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory that the Screen Tests were like a psychological test: “You would see the person fighting with his image—trying to protect it. You can project your image for a few seconds, but after that it slips and your real self starts to show through. That’s why it was so great—you saw the person and the image.”(Bomb magazine)

For example, take a look at Lou Reed as a young man. With the advantage of hindsght, we know that quite a few hard years were ahead of Reed:

In 2009, I had the chance to watch one of the Marcel Duchamp tests as part of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. From what I remember of the accompanying narrative, this particular sitting was irritating to Warhol because Duchamp “broke the rules” – he consciously avoided the camera’s gaze and repeatedly acknowledged other people outside the camera’s frame. Which is what made it so engaging and amusing for me.

Among the screen tests in Seattle is Freddy Herko‘s. An unfortunate story, Herko ended his life at a young age in quite a spectacular fashion shortly after the fim was shot. Herko was celebrated by his friends after his death, and was eulogized quite eloquently by Warhol (click through the link and read the entire page):

“… The people I loved were the ones like Freddy, the leftovers of show business, turned down at auditions all over town. They couldn’t do something more than once, but their one time was better than anyone else’s. They had star quality but no star ego – they didn’t know how to push themselves. They were too gifted to lead “regular lives,” but they were also too unsure of themselves to ever become real professionals.” (Warhol & Hackett, cited at the exhibition)

As for Cobain: it’s always interesting to view a retrospective of an artist whose work and identity has come to assume a large role in the development of one’s own generation. (view a slideshow here) It seems we only appreciate the cultural impact of a once-familiar icon after time,  a certain amount of emotional detachment, and several galling instances of cultural apropriation.

Alice Wheeler’s portrait of Cobain (copied in Seattle Weekly) echoed familiar Marilyn Monroe imagery, frequently referenced and featured as part of Warhol exhibitions. Somewhat unsettling were the several images of children, too young to actually remember the grunge days, sporting Nirvana and Cobain t shirts.

To tell the truth, I left the Cobain exhibition feeling like I hadn’t appreciated the impact of the grunge movement more consci0usly at the time.

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